Approaches (Part Seventeen)

Descent Rates and Glidepaths for Nonprecision Approaches

Maximum Acceptable Descent Rates

Operational experience and research have shown that a descent rate of greater than approximately 1,000 fpm is unacceptable during the final stages of an approach (below 1,000 feet AGL). This is due to a human perceptual limitation that is independent of the type of airplane or helicopter. Therefore, the operational practices and techniques must ensure that descent rates greater than 1,000 fpm are not permitted in either the instrument or visual portions of an approach and landing operation.

For short runways, arriving at the MDA at the MAP when the MAP is located at the threshold may require a missed approach for some aircraft. For non-precision approaches, a descent rate should be used that ensures the aircraft reaches the MDA at a distance from the threshold that allows landing in the TDZ. On many IAPs, this distance is annotated by a VDP. If no VDP is annotated, calculate a normal descent point to the TDZ. To determine the required rate of descent, subtract the TDZE from the FAF altitude and divide this by the time inbound. For example, if the FAF altitude is 2,000 feet MSL, the TDZE is 400 feet MSL and the time inbound is two minutes, an 800 fpm rate of descent should be used.


To verify the aircraft is on an approximate three degree glidepath, use a calculation of 300 feet to 1 NM. The glidepath height above TDZE is calculated by multiplying the NM distance from the threshold by 300. For example, at 10 NM the aircraft should be 3,000 feet above the TDZE, at 5 NM the aircraft should be 1,500 feet above the TDZE, at 2 NM the aircraft should be 600 feet above the TDZE, and at 1.5 NM the aircraft should be 450 feet above the TDZE until a safe landing can be made. Using the example in the previous text, the aircraft should arrive at the MDA (800 feet MSL) approximately 1.3 NM from the threshold and in a position to land within the TDZ. Techniques for deriving a 300-to-1 glide path include using DME, distance advisories provided by radar-equipped control towers, RNAV, GPS, dead reckoning, and pilotage when familiar features on the approach course are visible. The runway threshold should be crossed at a nominal height of 50 feet above the TDZE.

Transition to a Visual Approach

The transition from instrument flight to visual flight during an instrument approach can be very challenging, especially during low visibility operations. Aircrews should use caution when transitioning to a visual approach at times of shallow fog. Adequate visibility may not exist to allow flaring of the aircraft. Aircrews must always be prepared to execute a missed approach/go-around. Additionally, single-pilot operations make the transition even more challenging. Approaches with vertical guidance add to the safety of the transition to visual because the approach is already stabilized upon visually acquiring the required references for the runway. 100 to 200 feet prior to reaching the DA, DH, or MDA, most of the PM’s attention should be outside of the aircraft in order to visually acquire at least one visual reference for the runway, as required by the regulations. The PF should stay focused on the instruments until the PM calls out any visual aids that can be seen, or states “runway in sight.”The PF should then begin the transition to visual flight. It is common practice for the PM to call out the V/S during the transition to confirm to the PF that the instruments are being monitored, thus allowing more of the PF’s attention to be focused on the visual portion of the approach and landing. Any deviations from the stabilized approach criteria should also be announced by the PM.

Single-pilot operations can be much more challenging because the pilot must continue to fly by the instruments while attempting to acquire a visual reference for the runway. While it is important for both pilots of a two-pilot aircraft to divide their attention between the instruments and visual references, it is even more critical for the single- pilot operation. The flight visibility must also be at least the visibility minimum stated on the instrument approach chart, or as required by regulations. CAT II and III approaches have specific requirements that may differ from CAT I precision or non-precision approach requirements regarding transition to visual and landing. This information can be found in the operator’s OpSpecs or FOM.

Figure 4-21. Determination of visibility minimums.

Figure 4-21. Determination of visibility minimums.

The visibility published on an approach chart is dependent on many variables, including the height above touchdown for straight-in approaches or height above airport elevation for circling approaches. Other factors include the approach light system coverage, and type of approach procedure, such as precision, non-precision, circling or straight-in. Another factor determining the minimum visibility is the penetration of the 34:1 and 20:1 surfaces. These surfaces are inclined planes that begin 200 feet out from the runway and extend outward to the DA point (for approaches with vertical guidance), the VDP location (for non-precision approaches) and 10,000 feet for an evaluation to a circling runway. If there is a penetration of the 34:1 surface, the published visibility can be no lower than three-fourths SM.


If there is penetration of the 20:1 surface, the published visibility can be no lower than 1 SM with a note prohibiting approaches to the affected runway at night (both straightin and circling). [Figure 4-21 ] Circling may be permitted at night if penetrating obstacles are marked and lighted. If the penetrating obstacles are not marked and lighted, a note is published that night circling is “Not Authorized.” Pilots should be aware of these penetrating obstacles when entering the visual and/or circling segments of an approach and take adequate precautions to avoid them. For RNAV approaches only, the presence of a grey shaded line from the MDA to the runway symbol in the profile view is an indication that the visual segment below the MDA is clear of obstructions on the 34:1 slope. Absence of the gray shaded area indicates the 34:1 OCS is not free of obstructions. [Figure 4-22]

Figure 4-22. RNAV approach Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

Figure 4-22. RNAV approach Fort Campbell, Kentucky.